Rather than splitting this up into line, linebackers, and secondary, it's getting to be crunch time, and I still need to write my Georgia Tech preview. So I'm going to use one long blog posting to cover the whole defense. Bear with me.
Much has been made in the past year or so about our lack of recruiting at the defensive line position. There is a perception that our D-line is small, not that talented, and won't be very effective.
Let me take a moment to lay those fears to rest.
If you recall from my offensive line posting, I calculated the average sizes of our opponent's D-lines.
Here is that list, in order of average weight, with Notre Dame added:
Penn State - 6'3" 290 lbs.
Michigan - 6'3" 284 lbs.
Boston College - 6'3" 282 lbs.
Southern Cal - 6'4" 282 lbs.
Notre Dame - 6’2” 281 lbs. <------
Stanford - 6'4" 274 lbs.
UCLA - 6'3" 273 lbs.
Purdue - 6'4" 272 lbs.
Duke - 6'5" 269 lbs.
Georgia Tech - 6'4" 268 lbs.
Michigan State - 6'4" 266 lbs.
As you see, we are above average in size for a starting D-line. And that's not counting the 300-pounder we have backing up Pat Kunz in Ian Williams, a freshman who can push for playing time immediately.
This defensive line is not as weak as some people perceive on the front lines. Where the problem comes in is the depth. We have 2 options - and only 2 options - at nose tackle right now, with Hand suspended. And our depth at the ends is only marginally better. This line must stay healthy, and everyone on the depth chart must contribute effectively this year. The D-line is the key to our success this year on defense, as even the best secondary is useless if the opponents can run on you all day long.
Trevor Laws, Senior Defensive End
The lone returning starter from last year, Laws has spent his career at defensive tackle, and this year is moving out to the end, rather than manning the nose tackle position. I was at first confused by this move, but as I've broken down this defense, I believe that this move was made in an attempt to give Laws the most opportunities to slow down opposng offenses. Inside, all he would do is take on blockers, penetrate, and try to stop the run. By moving to the defensive end, he now has responsiblity for the primary running lanes of opponents, and can use his leverage to disrupt as a pass rusher.
Pat Kuntz, Junior Nose Tackle
The reason I was confused about moving Laws outside is the lack of a prototypical nose tackle on our team this year. I had high hopes when Coach Weis moved the giant Chris Stewart down to try out the position, but he didn't pan out, likely redshirting this year as he moves back to the O-line.
Kuntz has shown some tenacity at this postion, however. He held off Hand for the starting spot (even before Hand got into trouble with the law). He's a tad undersized at only 285 lbs, but he has shown a penchant for splitting double teams. His lack of size means that we need someone to spell him fairly often.
Justin Brown, Senior Defensive End
Dwight Stephenson, Jr. Senior (RS) Defensive End
This battle is going to spill into the season, and may never be definitively decided. Justin Brown has been the most improved player in the offseason, and has gotten repeated praise from the coaching staff in the offseason.
Stephenson has been playing with a fire in his fifth and final season, after not playing for his first two years, and seeng very little action as an upperclassmen. He bounced back and forth between defensive end and defensive tackle. With the switch to the 3-4, he is suddenly perfect for the 3-4 end, and decided to come back and try again.
This fiery competition should be very good for the defense, as it will keep both players from getting complacent, and will allow for frequent substitutions, keeping both players fresh throughout the season.
Paddy Mullen, Sophomore Defensive End
Kallen Wade, Sophomore Defensive End
These sophomores seem to have been recruited for the 3-4 defense, which makes me wonder if Weis has been considering the coaching change far before he let on. They need some more time to learn the defense, and they will both be subbed in frequently behind Laws to give them some valuable experence and playing time.
Ian Williams, Freshman Nose Tackle
The biggest piece of last year's recruiting class, Williams' absence this year would have been a glaring hole in our depth, and would have spelled disaster for the D-line. My hope is that as he learns the defense, Williams will supplant Kuntz as the starter by season's end.
The linebackng corps is full of the kind of guys that have been waiting patiently for their turn to become the next star linebacker. Only John Ryan is a little young to develop as a linebacker in this scheme, but his natural ability (and having Crum right next to him) more than makes up for it.
John Ryan, Sophomore OLB
John Ryan has been a pleasant surprise. The prototypical 3-4 OLB, Ryan is a great pass rusher that often struggled in the 4-3 scheme with getting off of blocks. The move to the 3-4 scheme and outside linebacker paid huge dividends, as it permits him to rush the QB, taking on the back o a shfting guard instead of those pesky offensive tackles, which will have their hands full with Trevor Laws. He also has developed his awareness as a pass defender, which permitted him to lock down this position.
Maurice Crum, Jr., Senior (RS) ILB
The rock that this defense has been built around, Crum has developed from an outside linebacker that was forced inside by necessity due to Ty's recruiting failures, to an outstanding inside linebacker. He's bulked up in the weight room and embraced the inside linebacker position. He's also embraced his leadership role, and is the veteran quarterback of this defense. Crum, like Sully, will take responsibility for his linebacking corps, making sure that they know their assignments and taking responsibility for the breakdowns. Crum's presence balances the inexperience on the rest of the linebacking corps.
Joe Brockington, Senior ILB
Toryan Smith, Sophomore ILB
This is a battle that is just plain a dead heat. The two players play almost identical to each other right now, and neither has shown any signs of weakness. I expect this battle to rage well into the season, with the younger Smith eventually leveraging his higher natural athleticism to wrest the starting spot away for himself.
Anthony Vernaglia, Senior OLB
Vernaglia is another of those great stories from this year's senior class. He started as a safety recruit (and a former HS wide receiver), but moved to outside linebacker before his sophomore year. He got injured last year, and finally comes into the season healthy and motivated, ready to make his mark. He has top end speed for an outside linebacker, and is the perfect guy to have at the weakside linebacker.
Morrice Richardson, Sophomore OLB
Kerry Neal, Freshman OLB
Brian Smith Freshman OLB
Neal and Smith were specifcally recruited for the outside linebacker position, natural pass rushers with good speed for pass defense.
Scott Smith, Junior ILB
Smith is an unknown quantity. The coaches have named him the starter, but only his game experience will show whether he has earned it. While he has had time under Coach Weis, he has not had time under Coach Brown. He will sink or swim, but due to his experience, I believe he will swim. Call me an optimist, but (for the first time in a decade) I have faith in the coaching staff. Call me naive if you'd like, but I don't doubt his ability.
You want depth? We've got depth.
The Irish staff has effectively recruited the elite corners we were always lacking during the Ty years, stockpiling such talent that we are at LEAST 3 deep at every position in the secondary. And the dropoff from the top to bottom isn't that far. In fact, the starting corner for the last couple of years, Ambrose Wooden, got passed on the depth chart by young phenom Darrin Walls, possibly the most gifted young corner we've ever recruited.
Darrin Walls, Sophomore Cornerback
Last year, as a true freshman, Walls was thrown to the wolves in the opener against one of the best receivers ever to play in college, when he was substituted in on man-to-man coverage with Calvin Johnson. He may not have been a starter last year, but he is not spring chicken this year. During the offseason, Walls was lauded for becoming much more physical at the line of scrimmage, which allowed him to separate from Wooden and grab the starting spot from the experienced senior.
David Bruton, Junior Free Safety
The weakest link of the secondary on paper, Bruton logged only 85 minutes of playing time last year on special teams and as a reserve safety. Despite not being a highly touted prospect out of high school (rated 3 stars), he has stepped up his workouts in the offseason and held off the younger more athletic recruits pushing him for playing time. If he continues to work as hard through the school year as he has in the offseason, he'll be a solid defender, if not as flashy as his counterparts.
Tom Zbikowski, Senior (RS) Strong Safety
Tommy Z is one of four players on the Notre Dame roster that may be the best in the country at their position this year (the other 3: Carlson, TE; Sullivan, C; Price, P). He played overweight and in pain for much of last year, but is now in better shape even than he played 2 years ago. A preseason consensus All-American, Zibby plays with a mean streak and nastiness that should only be fueled even more by Corwin's schemes. I expect Zibby to have a breakout season this year, and if he can bring his punt returns back to the place they were 2 years ago, he could garner some attention for player of the year awards in the mold of Charles Woodson 20 years ago. It's a longshot, but Zibby is pissed off this year. And you won't like him when he's angry...
Terrail Lambert, Senior Cornerback
Lambert broke out in the Michigan State game last year, and has been steadily gaining confidence ever since. He started the final 10 games of the season.
Lambert is one of my favorite stories as a member of the mysteriously shrinking class of seniors. One of the jewels of the class (a 4 star recruit), he had to watch as his classmates repeatedly defected and left the team. Even the star of the class, Darius Walker, decided to leave early this past offseason. But Lambert kept plugging away, even as Coach Weis signed 5-star cornerback after 5-star cornerback behind him. He refused to let anyone pass him on the depth chart, and eventually earned his spot at the front of the line.
He plays with a nose for the ball, leading the team in interceptions last year. He needs to work on being more physical at the line of scrimmage and on not going into the tank after a mistake.
Ambrose Wooden, Senior CB
Raeshon McNeil, Sophomore CB
Leo Ferrine, Senior CB
Munir Prince, Sophomore CB
Wooden will likely be our nickel back this year, as he actually has the most experience at the cornerback position. Wooden is a very good corner that is the poster boy for Weis' recruiting upgrades to this team. Although he was a very good 4-star recruit, he lacked that last level of speed that elite corners have. And Wooden did nothing wrong this offseason - he has simply reached the limits of his ability. But if Wooden is our nickel back, that means we have one of the deepest and most talented secondaries in the nation. To put this in perspective, Wooden was ranked the 18th best corner in the nation this preseason. And he's playing nickel.
Raeshon McNeil will probably be our dime, and Leo Ferrine will be the top backup. We may see some of Munir Prince, but probably not in crucial situations at first, as he's still transitioning from running back.
Kyle McCarthy, Junior FS
Jashaad Gaines, Sophomore FS
Harrison Smith, Freshman FS
Ray Herring, Junior SS
Sergio Brown, Sophomore SS
Leonard Gordon, Sophomore SS
This group of safeties is pretty good, but nobody in this group has shown that spark that you want from a safety; that hard-hitting, balls to the wall style of play. McCarthy's speed is his best attribute, but he needs to work on his hitting. Harrison Smith has the most potential, but he's a true freshman, and needs to adjust to the game. Sergio Brown can hit, but needs to work on his mental game. The rest are pretty good, and need to pay attention to Zibby this season to learn some atttude.
The defense this year is going to be whatever Coach Brown makes of it. If he is as good as his pedigree, he will elevate this defense to the next level. If he is not, he will fall on his face. Whatever happens, this year's defense will, much like Coach Weis said in his first press conference, reflect the attitude of the coach. If we have a new attitude, the defense will play with fire and conviction. If not, we will be flat and uninspired. Either way, this year's team will rise or fall with Coach Brown. I believe that we will elevate our game, but only time will tell.